Mercury rising?
Nathan Midgley broods on the latest music prizes.

Despite honouring some of the finest music around, the Mercury Music Prize has never been what you'd call popular.

Introduced in 1992 to celebrate the best of British music, it whittles an annual shortlist of twelve albums down to one, and is judged by an independent and anonymous panel that, it's claimed, consists entirely of faceless suits and embittered journalists.

This year Murdoc, from Blur vocalist Damon Albarn's hip-pop Pokemon the Gorillaz, rejected the band's nomination, comparing it to having an albatross hung round his neck.

The slightly lame truth of the matter, of course, is that cartoon character Murdoc doesn't exist.  The statement came from Albarn himself - but if we stopped humouring celebrities there wouldn't be an entertainment industry at all, would there? And nobody wants that. 

In any case, when the award ceremony went ahead on Tuesday 11th September 2001, it did itself few favours. The majority of people I spoke to hadn't noticed it taking place - not even the Guardian mentioned the ceremony in the following day's press - and most that did were appalled that it wasn't postponed.

It was a bad year for that reason alone, but there was still the result to consider. Nice to see PJ Harvey, Mercury's own Jana Novotna, finally win after three previous nominations, but hang on - isn't the purpose of the award to kick-start the careers of the young, fresh and brilliant? To the cynics, the trophies that went to dance artists Roni Size and to Talvin Singh in 1998 and 1999 respectively were a measured response to increasing accusations of conservatism. While 2000's prize for Manchester-based nu-folkie Badly Drawn Boy was a return to the more familiar strategy of playing it safe with the year's most critically acclaimed Alternative record (see also: Pulp's Different Class, 1996; Portishead's Dummy, 1995; Suede's Suede, 1993; Primal Scream's Screamadelica, 1992).

Surely the 2001 prize belonged with relative newcomer Ed Harcourt, or with Basement Jaxx's melting-pot house? What about a nomination for Squarepusher's unprecedented and frankly terrifying slice of mad-scientist electronica, Go Plastic? And come to think of it, where was rap music on the shortlist?  The announcement is always followed by a cacophony of complaints and reservations; the one certain thing about it is that nobody's ever entirely satisfied.

With this year arguably its worst so far, is the Mercury Music Prize still important? And come to that, was it ever?

To be fair, there are very few awards that don't come in for some sort of stick. What makes Mercury such a prime target, though, is its dumb-ass remit. One album, no criteria. Duh.

Whereas most awards do the sensible thing and pick categories - which generate enough disputes in themselves - Mercury tries to get all Deep Thought on us, and come up with the year's answer to British music, the universe and everything. While I applaud the commitment to promoting and celebrating all kinds of sounds (except the truly horrid sound generally emitted by M-People, who were bafflingly nominated and even more bafflingly won in 1994), I can't help thinking the good intentions are doomed to produce something vague and mutually dissatisfying.

Look at past nominees; it's a wonderful idea that the composer Michael Nyman's lush strings (94), Black Grape's funked-up shouting matches (96) and Kathryn William's gossamer-spun folk (2000) can have all been up for the same award, but it's more wonderful still that one small country has produced so many different artists, and that they can all find critical recognition as well as a degree of commercial success. Doesn't it detract from that eclecticism - which is, after all, what Mercury claims to highlight and reward - to bung them all under one umbrella, then shut it so that one pops out of the top?

Assume for a second that I'm wrong (I know, I know; just try.) If the practice of picking one winner from a shortlist broader than a blue whale is a fair way of representing British music, how well has the Mercury dispatched its duty? Have the winning albums showcased the full spectrum of UK talent?

On balance, I wouldn't say so. The prize has honoured some of my favourite cuts of all time, but the fact remains that it generally ignores non-mainstream artists in favour of ones that play pop or rock with a non-mainstream twist. 

In the winner's enclosure, soul and R'n'B are represented by M-People's soul-pop, folk by Badly Drawn Boy's folk-rock, and blues by that skinny guy from Gomez who sounds like he's eaten gravel. Hip-hop, more worryingly, is represented by nobody at all save the odd MC on Roni Size's New Forms, while classical is nowhere to be seen. Collectively, the ten winners so far don't nearly do justice to the variety of the shortlists, and that's very disappointing (go back to assuming I'm right now, I have). 

It's unheard of for an artist with no commercial potential to win; although the prizes for Size and Singh showed a willingness to move away from more traditional formats, both albums had obvious mainstream appeal and came long after dance and breakbeat had burst out of the underground. Composers are nominated, folk singers are nominated, but they never win and nobody expects them to. Which makes their very presence on the shortlist look more like a token gesture than a celebration of diversity. 

Compared to the MTV awards, though, the Mercury is an open-minded oasis.  The last instalment saw Britney Spears nominated for best dance act and culminated in me physically assaulting the TV. While the Mercury's execution may be flawed and the motivation questionable, at least lesser names get a look-in.  Runners-up they may be, but all eleven nominees can still expect a reported 20-30% increase in sales.

And while I've argued that sales aren't everything, they do prove that the Mercury is helping good acts reach wider audiences. That help still isn't as fairly distributed as it could and should be (some winners have seen sales rise by 100%), but it's a start. At their celebrity-worshipping, industry back-scratching worst, these occasions offer nothing more than something to rally against and rant at. At their rare and limited best, though, they do at least try to support good artists that the limelight normally keeps at arm's length. The Mercury is far from ideal, but as my twin brother Damien put it, it remains the music award 'least likely to make your heart explode with hate' .

Wise and well-chosen words, bruv. 

(c) Nathan Midgley 2001

A compilation of this year's nominations is available here.
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A compilation of this year's nominations